I am frequently asked by friends to review their resumes and I find that I often give the same advice over and over, so decided to make a blog post to go over the main points.
I have been on both sides of the resume game. I once had six resumes in a row lead to six interviews that lead to six job offers (I only accepted one). In some of my recent jobs, I beat out a pool of hundreds to get the position. On the hiring side, I spent well over fifteen years in executive and other leadership roles interviewing hundreds, and hiring dozens of people. Moreover, I used to have a side business where I also did headhunting – so this is an area for which I have some level of expertise.
For this post, I am going to hit on two major themes, and then follow them with a few random observations and comments.
Theme 1: Imagine you are a manager and you have an under-performing employee who you have witnessed to be highly inefficient with their time. When you talk about their poor performance, they say, “Look, I am working 55 hours a week – I can’t work any more. Moreover, I am responsible for a, b, c, d, e, f, g, and h.” What would be your response?
Would you say, “Well, in that case, soldier on! Well done.”
Or, would you say something like, “I am primarily interested in results, not effort. And while you are responsible for a, b, c, d, e, f, g, and h, you aren’t actually getting them done. I really need you to produce.”?
Resume lesson – most people explain what they do, often using words like “responsible for” – and my response when I see this is “So what?” Consider that Captain John Smith was responsible for getting the Titanic safely to New York, Donald Rumsfeld was responsible for winning the war in Iraq, and Kathleen Sebelius was responsible for launching the Healthcare.gov site. Being “responsible for” is meaningless. Moreover, it communicates that you are a good soldier and do what you are told. This is a great trait if you are stocking shelves in a super market, but doesn’t show the initiative and creative thinking that many employers seek for management jobs.
Even though I pick on the words “responsible for” – this lesson goes for anything where you tell what you did. An HR director may say, “Initiated new wellness program,” and CFO may state that they consolidated multiple charts of account, and a CIO may say they launched a new ERP system. This does not imply success, nor does it communicate any value.
Fortunately, there is an easy fix: start with a measurable business outcome, then use the word “by” and then put what you did. For example, the HR director could write, “Reduced sick leave by 7%, saving the company $230,000 a year, by initiating a new wellness program,” the CIO could write, “Helped increase sales by 20% while reducing overall margin by 10% by launching new ERP system.” Now you are explaining WHY what you did mattered (and proves success).
Note that in the last example – it started with “Helped increase sales…” and not, “Increased sales…” Most of us are cogs in a larger machine and we rightly feel uncomfortable taking credit for things that are larger than us. But by prefacing the business result with “helped,” “assisted with,” etc., it communicates that you played an important part, and understand how what you did helped the greater mission of the organization.
Note that for most for-profit companies, business value typically falls into three categories: you either helped make money, save money, or mitigated risk. Each bullet on your resume should start with some variant of the three. For nonprofits you can add a fourth category – return on mission. For some public sector, you can add taxpayer services.
Theme 2: Imaging you are looking at a dating site for a potential mate, and you saw two profiles.
Profile 1 reads like this:
6:20 – I wake up
6:25-6:45 – morning coffee, breakfast, read paper
6:45-6:50 – morning bathroom visit
6:50-7:20 – shower, fix hair, get dressed
7:20-7:45 – drive to work
7:45-8:00 – coffee at Starbucks
8:00-4:00 – in office. Includes one-hour lunch break
4:00-5:00 – commute home
5:00-5:30 – playtime with Mr. Boots the cat
5:30-6:15 – dinner
6:15-630 – dishes, house cleaning
6:30-7:00 – chores – pay bills, etc.
7:00-9:00 – Go running and/or spend time with friends.
9:00-10:00 – wind down for bed, read book or magazine, brush teeth, lay out clothes for tomorrow
10:00 – go to bed
Profile 2 reads like this:
Passionate about exploring – love to travel the world and experience new cultures
Love running – have run four marathons
Enjoy board games with friends
Hold three pattents
Am somewhat an expert on Belgian beers
I never miss a good comedy movie
Which one would you be more interested in going on a date with?
Which dating profile is more accurate to how they spend their time?
Note that both profiles could belong to the same person. What is the goal of a dating profile? To get a date. What is the goal of a resume? To get an interview (not a job). Your resume does not need to reflect (nor should it reflect) how you spend your time.
One more thing to drive the point home – say you liked the band Journey well enough and went to download their Greatest Hits but saw that for just a little more, you could get an anthology that has every single song they ever recorded. Would you really want all the B-side songs that never went anywhere – or would you prefer just the greatest hits? I think most of us would prefer to stick to the greatest hits.
Your resume should not be an anthology – it should be your greatest hits. Some of your greatest hits may have come from flashes of brilliance, taking very small amounts amounts of time. Compared to your entire tenure at a company, these may account for .000001% of what you actually accomplished while there, but they are the things that matter most. Don’t bury them in meaningless details that do not communicate value.
Lastly, throw something interesting in there that piques their interest. Remember in the second dating profile the person had three patents? Wouldn’t you want to know what those patents are? Would it almost be worth a date to find that out? Don’t be a tease and give partial unusable information on your resume, but leave it open enough that they will want to follow up.
- Resumes can definitely be longer than one page – to be safe, shoot for two (definitely no more than three)
- Don’t exaggerate
- Don’t start the resume with an objective section unless it is an unsolicited resume for a large company. Everyone is “looking for a challenging position…” Instead, start with a branding statement that talks about what drives you – not as much what you do or how you do it, but why you do it. My branding statement includes, “Am passionate about technology and its role to improve lives, transform organizations, and change the world.” A good branding statement will help set the context for the rest of your resume.
- Nobody cares what you did 15 years ago – so don’t waste valuable resume real estate when you can talk up more about what you are doing today. List the job, but don’t go into much (if any) detail as to what you accomplished.
- Note that your resume may be the 170th resume the person is reading that day and they are just looking for an excuse to toss it. Make it exceedingly easy for them to read – use bullets and get to the point.
- For each employer that you worked for, it helps to provide some vitals – size of company, size of your department, budget size, etc.
- Don’t exaggerate
- If you have a lot of LinkedIn references, create a custom LinkedIn link and put it in the header of your resume with your phone and address
- End your resume with a section called “Interests” and list things you do for fun. First of all, this humanizes you (“…Oh, you’re the spelunker”) and you may form a connection with the reader (“Hey – I’m a swimmer too!”).
- No need to state “References available upon request” – this should be understood.
- Don’t exaggerate